Impressions count. Not just first impressions, but all the way from first to last and at each stage in between. You can lose someone at any point in the process and, as many have learnt the hard way, the web is one of the most unforgiving forums.
Most marketing strategies and tools put your business “in their face”. Not so with the web. This is a forum where people seek your product out and when they find you they are finding hundreds, if not thousands, of your competitors at the same time. One bad experience and they’ll simply go next door. Why should they be loyal when there is so much to choose from? The one exception to this is with e-commerce, where users will put up with a degree of discomfort in order to use a tried, tested and safe supplier, but for the rest of us who are merely using the web as an advertising portal, there is no such tolerance.
The first impression when someone arrives at your site. If it has taken too long to load, they may simply give up and go somewhere else. People who use the internet are generally doing so because of speed and convenience. Take those two elements away and you leave them with no reason to be there. When you are waiting for a page to load, even 5 seconds can feel like forever, let alone 20 or 30 seconds or more.
Loading speed needs to be tested continuously over a period, using different browsers and computers, at different times of the day, week and month. Why? because the internet is like a huge highway that at times gets congested. If you only test once, you could get a very skewed impression.
Checklist Does your site load quickly on various browsers, PC’s and connection speeds, at different times of the day and week.
Second impression. When people arrive at your site, what do they see? Are the colours pleasant and easy on the eye? Can you actually read the text or is it so small that you have to squint? Perhaps so large that you feel as if you need to move back a few paces.
Items to consider include:
- Page is not over-filled or too “busy”. Will your visitors feel overwhelmed and be left wondering where on earth to start? It’s fine to have lots of information, but it should be laid out logically and with enough white space in between to make it easy to compartmentalise. Remember, the human mind is used to order and logic …. even for the most chaotic of us.
Graphic overload and “gimmicks” are another potential problem. Graphics should serve a purpose and be limited to what is really needed to create the necessary effect. If you want to have something clever on your site to impress visitors, keep it to one or two things. Too much activity is off-putting. This means that endless flashing lights, flying letters and words, rotating banners and text hopping all over the place is really not a good idea. Remember the KISS principle.
- Colours make sense and are easy on the eye. Certain colours simply do not work well on the web, especially in combination. Try to stick to a couple of colours that you combine wisely to create a harmonious effect. This doesn’t mean you can’t be bold, just that you need to be bold in a way that doesn’t send the mind into instant revolt.
- Text should be the right colour and size for easy readability. Pale blue text on a white background, for example, is not a good idea. Text that is either too small or too large, will merely be annoying. Keep it clear and easy on the eyes.
- Front page. Having a “cool” front page that does nothing but display your name and a sign saying enter may seem great to you … it may even seem great to your visitors the first time around … but it can also be hugely irritating. Even more so if they have just waited 5 minutes for it to load. Never forget that people come to your site looking for information. The longer it takes them to get there, the more frustrated they will become and the more likely they will be to go somewhere else. When it comes to these splash pages, also known as portals or front doors, you are dealing with a number of issues: look, speed, functionality. Think carefully about using them.
- Graphic effects. We’ve already dealt with this and the importance of keeping it to a minimum, but it probably bears repeating again. If you do have a lot of special effects and graphics that you simply HAVE to use, try to spread these through your site to mimimise visual overload and avoid slow loading times.
- Html headings should be used with care. If you use it for nothing else, use CSS for your headings so that you can manipulate text sizes, boldness and underlining. Straight html headings come up huge and become a problem if you have a few of them on a page. Headings need to get attention, not blow people
Checklist Is your site easy and pleasant on the eye; not overcrowded; not too empty; text is clear and legible; not too busy; colours and graphics work well together; nothing overpowering.
The feel of your site is affected by numerous factors, including all the items dealt with above. To achieve a good feel, you need to look at how you combine text, graphics, effects, colour, layout, placement of links and speed. Some sites take the white space concept too far and end up with pages that feel cold and empty, as if the person or business behind the site really has nothing to offer. Others make it so crowded that it feels disconcerting. With some, the placement of information and links is so poorly done that the site feels clumsy and unpleasant to navigate. There are many sites where the colours and layout say “welcome” and are uplifting, while others practically shout at you to go away. What does yours say?
It is also important to remember that what may work extremely well in print, does not always translate well onto a screen, especially considering that you do not have absolute control over how your site will be seen. Different resolutions, browsers and PC’s will see your offering differently. This aspect is dealt with further in the sections below, but for now, the important thing is that the feel is the third impression that visitors will gain from your site and it is all about achieving balance.
Checklist Does your site have the right feel, making it welcoming and a pleasure to visit and use.
Once your visitors have arrived and absorbed the look and feel of your site, the next thing they are going to notice is the actual content. If they were looking for graphics, did they find good graphics? If they are looking for information, did they find good information on the subject they expected? There are a few issues involved here. The one is that your site actually serves a purpose. Visitors must leave with what they came for … at the very least with more than they had when they arrived and all the essential information about your business.
Do they now know what you do, how you do it and how to get hold of you? This is the critical test for even the most basic site. In terms of having their expectations met, this is not entirely influenced by you because expectations are very personal. However, where I have seen some sites set themselves up for failure in terms of visitor disappointment, is in the realms of META tags and even spamming. Yes you want visitors. Yes you want everyone out there to find you, but tricking them is not the way to make a good impression, especially if you are running a serious business that is here for the long haul. Optimise your site, but not at the expense of your integrity.
Checklist Look at your site. Does it give valuable information? Do you have sufficient tags, links and content that relate only to your genuine offering?
After reading your first page, visitors now want to browse further if the site seems to be of interest. Perhaps they have specific information that they are looking for. The question is, how easy have you made it for them to find it … or have you simply set them up for frustration and annoyance?
The web has been around for a while now and as it has evolved, so certain basic “formats” have emerged. While it is great to be different and memorable, you preferably want to be remembered for the right reasons, not because the experience was so awful. There are certain expectations that visitors have of all sites. One of these is that they can find their way around.
Just yesterday I received a promotional email from a fairly well-known internet company. In it, they were inviting me to sign up for a special offer. When I went to the site, I ended up having to click on every single link in order to find the page that had the further information. Needless to say, I never signed up, even though I had just spent about 20 minutes trying to find the information. The service they were offering in the email sounded great, but they lost all credibility once I could not logically find my way around.
Another marvellous experience that I have frequently had is businesses sending me emails about products or services that were of interest. I would go to the site, easily find the related link …. only to get an error message because the link was broken. Then of course there is the site that hides its information behind obscurely named links or behind a well-named link that seems to have no relation to the information whatsoever. For example, you’re looking for a physical address and this has been stuck behind the “products” link or a link called “landing pad”.
So … in assessing functionality, consider the following:
Checklist Does your site layout make it easy to logically find information; do links render the expected information, do all the links work and does the site flow.
This deals with a number of issues, all related to how easy it is to find your site and, once found, to use it. That may seem as if I am saying the same thing as I did above, but this is coming from a slighly different angle. At this point we are not concerned so much with links as we are with the question of whether ALL users can access your site and gain a valid experience from it. Let’s take these one at a time.
Are people finding you? You can have the best site on the web, but if nobody finds you, you’re wasting your time and money. If you are not getting any enquiries off the web, it normally comes down to a combination of factors: inadequate META tags, missing titles on your pages, poor first page content, your site not being on the various directories and search engines, not being linked to from any other sites. Any one of these on their own can hurt you. Together they are suicide. It doesn’t stop with being found by search engines either. In the world of the web, ranking is god. If you are coming up in the results at number 2765, or perhaps as high as number 70, you do not even feature. Unless you appear within the first three pages, chances are nobody will ever get to see you.
One of the best ways to test this is to go into the search engines yourself and type in the keywords that you think people would use when trying to find your kind of business, product or service. Can’t find yourself? – Nor can anyone else. This is where optimisation comes into the equation and there are many companies who offer to do optimisation and/or submission for a small fee. Some are outstanding. Some will cause enormous damage that could actually preclude you from ever being listed by various engines or directories.
So what must you do? First of all, test your site for an accurate picture. Next, be prepared to spend a good amount of time tweaking your META tags and the site itself, setting up cross-linking and submitting to all the major and relevant directories ….. sometimes over and over again. – Not because they need resubmission once listed, but because it sometimes takes months of periodic submission to be accepted. Having a good site to begin with and following submission guidelines carefully can prevent this type of problem, but it is time consuming none-the-less.
An important note here is that you no longer NEED to submit to search engines. They will find you on their own.
Now for the next question. Does everyone who visits get to see and use your site? This may seem to be a rather daft question, but only if you are using a later model PC and a later version of Internet Explorer. Many people are still using older computers and older browsers and for them, your site could be a dismal failure. Likewise, visitors using some of the different browsers like Netscape, Firefox, Opera, etc. will often see your site a little differently to Internet Explorer users. If the site is not tested on these browsers, it could actually render very badly for those visitors.
Ask yourself these questions:
Has your site been tested on various versions of various browsers?
Do you have frames and, if you do, do your frames also accomodate people who don’t have the capacity to see them?
Do you have alt tags on your graphics so that people without graphic capabilities can still make sense of your site?
Is there anything in your site’s coding that works in only one type or version of browser? This is one of the most common errors made by even some of the most highly regarded web designers and developers. They sit down with the latest Internet Explorer and as long as their coding works there, they consider it successful. The moment someone comes along with a lower version of IE, Netscape or one of the other lesser used browsers, the site looks like it’s been hacked by a practical joker. Is that what you want your visitors to experience?
Just like the spider’s web, without the glue, you’ll never catch a thing. Even if you are at the top of every search engine result, it will serve little purpose if visitors come to your site and immediately leave. The point is to get them there, then keep them there until they have done what you want them to do, whether this is to read, to buy, to contact you. Whatever the objective of your site, you want it realised.
Once again this is no stand-alone issue, but is influenced by a number of things like, look, feel, content and issues that “grab” attention and encourage visitors to go further into the site.
Checklist Does your site grab interest and provoke visitors to come in deeper?
Finally, is your site online for at least 99.5% of the time, does it look and perform the same with every visit and do you have a theme that flows throughout so that the pages very obviously tie together.
The first issue relates to your choice of host and this is where the cheapest is not always the best choice. Once again, uptime is something that needs to be tested on an ongoing basis, at all times of day and night, in order to gain an accurate picture.
When it comes to consistent performance, the question here is how stable is your site. Generally, the simpler the coding, the more stable your site will be. This does not necessarily mean that complex coding will cause a wobbly site, merely that it is less likely with less complexity. In addition, even stable sites sometimes catch a wobble and the key is constant monitoring to ensure that no graphics have suddenly disappeared, formatting has not for some obscure reason suddenly changed and your site is not being bombarded with error messages.
Lastly, keep your site branded. In other words, choose an identity that you want to project and then stick with it, just as you would with any marketing tool.
Checklist Uptime is at least 99.5%; site is stable, pages flow.
With all of these above issues, you need not battle along on your own, spending valuable time on issues that could perhaps be better delegated. It really doesn’t matter who creates and looks after your website, whether it’s you yourself, Aunty Nellie or a professional. All that matters is that the end results are achieved and you have a web presence that is earning its keep.